TAMPA — Mayor Jane Castor was out and about last week, promising a greater city role in the arts to an approving crowd at Hillsborough Community College and updating business leaders at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast downtown.
She answered the usual questions about the fate of the Tampa Bay Rays while pounding home her vision for Tampa: affordable homes, walkable neighborhoods and helping residents develop the skills they need to get a better job.
Meanwhile, behind-the-scenes negotiations on the city's budget and three union contracts has occupied much of the mayor's time in her first six weeks in office.
The police, fire and city workers contracts all expire Oct. 1, and union negotiators have yet to sit down with Kimberly Crum, the city's human resources director and Castor's designated lead negotiator.
Local 754 Firefighters union president Joe Greco said he isn't worried. Typically, talks won't begin until around July 1.
Greco said the police and fire unions want to create their own health insurance pools. As the city's youngest and fittest employees, police and fire department personnel need better benefits and more control over costs, he said.
"That's our number one priority," Greco said.
Police union president Abe Carmack and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1464 president Stephen Simon weren't available for comment.
Asked at the chamber breakfast about her key budget priorities, Castor welcomed a surplus estimated at $3.7 million — the first in eight years, she said, thanks to rising property values and a trim city workforce.
While departments have made requests that would use all of that surplus and then some, she said she intends to focus on providing city services, looking for efficiencies and moving the city forward in several key areas, including affordable housing and transportation.
"There aren't going to be big-ticket items in this next budget," Castor said.
But the City Council has final approval over whatever Castor proposes. She's scheduled to deliver her budget to council members on Aug. 1.
Castor has likely allies in veteran council members such as chairman Luis Viera and council icon Charlie Miranda. But the other five members are wild cards.
Castor's predecessor, Bob Buckhorn, made a stir during his first budget negotiations in 2011 when he announced publicly he only needed four council votes to pass his budget during a battle over community pool funding with former council member Frank Reddick.
Guido Maniscalco, the third returning council member, has expressed a desire to reopen community pools in Seminole Heights and West Tampa. He has been an occasional supporter of John Dingfelder, who has been the most active council member thus far in challenging Castor's strong mayoral powers., And Orlando Gudes has been consistent in saying that the city needs to pay more attention to poor and working-class residents in his district, which covers East Tampa, downtown and parts of West Tampa.
A third new member, Bill Carlson, an avowed foe of Buckhorn, has worked hard to form a bond with Castor. Carlson organized the arts forum at HCC Dale Mabry, giving the mayor a well-attended venue to launch an Arts on the Block initiative that pairs artists with neighborhoods.
The first site will be Alfred "Al" Barnes Park in the College Hills neighborhood, the city said Friday.
Carlson said he doesn't have a line in the sand for the budget talks. He would like to see more attention paid to sparking Tampa's art community, saying St. Petersburg has stolen the march on its larger neighbor.
"I'm open-minded about this. I'm looking forward to learning more," Carlson said after a City Hall meeting.
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org